Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham

Asher, the jaded anti-hero of Lightning On The Sun, was once an idealistic young man, much like the young author who created him, Robert Bingham. I suspect to know Asher is to know a bit of Robert Bingham, since Bingham worked for a couple years (like Asher) in Cambodia as a reporter. Before Bingham (M.F.A. from Columbia University) fatally overdosed on heroin in late 1999 at the age of 33, just five months prior to the publication of his first novel, Lightning On The Sun, he'd published a short story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, and his fiction and non-fiction had appeared in The New Yorker -- he was definitely destined to be a writer to keep one's eyes on in the new millennium. He'd just started his own literary journal too, Open City Magazine, and he'd just gotten married. Robert Bingham had a lot going for him both in his fledgling career as an author and in his personal life. Critics compared his debut novel to Robert Stone's 1975 National Book Award-winning, drug smuggling masterpiece, Dog Soldiers. (I love that book!)  But Bingham, apparently, had a habit he couldn't quite kick.  Like Asher.  But Asher's addictions weren't quite as hardcore as heroin, assuming we consider the combined addiction to opium, cocaine, hashish and vodka gulped straight from a frosty bottle, not as hardcore as junk alone.

Lightning On The Sun, set in 1990s Cambodia, opens with images of bats and ends with bats. Bats hang upside down. Cambodia's a nation turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. By the 1990s, when we meet Asher, the Khmer Rouge has largely disintegrated in the jungles, but joined forces and thereby maintained political clout with an equally as heinous, if somewhat less genocidal, regime; a regime at war with another somewhat less genocidal regime, in a civil war which will soon erase any ideas of democracy for the nation of Cambodia.

Asher has fled L.A. to Cambodia both to try and kick his drug habit and to escape a woman who's a bad habit in her own right, Julie. Julie's got both the looks and the impressive pedigree: well educated, smart, resourceful, rich lawyer father (she should be going places too, right?), and yet, yet, like Asher, she's an addict, working as a stripper at The Stopless in L.A.

We meet the expatriate Asher at a point in his life when he can no longer stomach the political corruption he witnesses daily swarming about him in Cambodia. Perhaps if his personal life weren't so corrupt he could stomach Cambodia easier. He can stomach less the barang (American) journalists (never mind he's pretty much one of them) he must daily work with, who all drink and dish dirt day after day at the same dreary dives. Disillusioned, nearly broke, Asher hatches a plan for his escape from Cambodia back to L.A. He has just enough money, barely, to purchase just enough pure opium to give him a fresh start in the States. A clean slate. But, on his way to make the deal, Cambodian cops have other ideas, having set up shop right on the damn road - a road become toll road.

"Motherfucker," said Asher.  He tried to take a right. He couldn't. There was a car. Someone was blowing a whistle at him. There was a cop with an evil baton. It was lit red by something sinister within. The cop waved it at Asher. If he kept going they might shoot him, but maybe they wouldn't. Asher considered not stopping. It was a golden rule of the country roads; don't stop unless you have to. The whistle went off again. The whistle. It was a monster. He pulled over.

"The extortion had a semblance of bureaucracy. There were two cops going through people's papers. They had flashlights. One cop was pointing his flashlight into the face of a motorist and explaining to him how it was going to be. Asher had no papers. Asher had nothing to account for himself but three thousand dollars."

After paying the "toll," Asher, needless to say, has drastically less than three thousand dollars. But he must make this deal! He believes it his only chance to get the hell out of Cambodia for good. Enter Asher's landlord, Mr. Hawk, to the late night rescue. Mr. Hawk moonlights as a loan shark. Mr. Hawk's boss, in fact, though Asher will never know this (but Julie will) is the very man in charge of one of the mildly genocidal regimes mentioned earlier. Now, if you're intuiting at this point in the review that this intense, true-to-life, thriller-like, effing fabulous novel does not have a happy ending -- you just might (might, I say) be right!

Mr. Hawk offers Asher a deal he can't refuse: ten percent interest a week! Accepting, Asher must then dupe his recent colleague acquaintance, Reese, who will soon be returning to the States for his sister's wedding, into taking along a package with him -- Asher's "screenplay". Reese, naively, unwittingly, obliges. Meanwhile, Asher has reconnected with his ex, Julie, who will intercept the package once Reese checks into his hotel, but she'll have to screw him every which way and lace his drink first before she can get the package. And wouldn't you know it, unbeknownst to Asher, Julie's got plans of her own for the dope: mix in a little corn starch to increase its volume and, voila, she can sell it (or so she thinks) to the local street dealer for even more dough and skip town with the cash, and without her faux beau, Asher!

God I'd hate to be Asher (or to have been Bingham, for that matter).  Poor duped Asher (thinking he's the duper in this sordid equation) expecting that money to be wired into his account so that he can pay off his impatient and petulant and gun-toting loan shark. Jesus, he's about to get screwed himself, and with no happy ending!  Horrific.  But wait ... Asher's emotional ties with Julie run deep.

"Where's my money, Julie?" Asher pleads on the phone, and soon convinces Julie to fly to Phnom Penh with the cash. And then ... then all bat-shit-out-of-hell breaks loose in this edgy, leering, noiristic narrative. There's even a little person -- a dwarf -- Julie's sleazy Stopless employer involved in this murderous mess. There's deception as well (including fatal self-deception), greed, great train robberies, backstabbings, explosions of the combustible kind and of the lust and casual sex kind, not to mention lies, lies, and more lies, avarice, angst, jealousy, nihilism, kidnappings, and death. Plenty of violent, gorey death. Even glorious irreligiosity put on proud, defiant display in the face of certain death.  Lightning on the Sun is profound, disturbing stuff.  It's some good shit for shore!  But who dies in the novel (and who doesn't) ... I'll never say.

What's amazing to me about Robert Bingham, the writer, is that despite his despicably acting, amoral, narcissistic, self-destructive characters, they are, nonetheless, quite likable. Bingham, from what I've gathered, was quite likable and affable himself.  A compassionate man, one more considerate than his alter-ego anti-hero.  Lovable much like the deeply flawed, vice ridden, real people we all know and love. Bingham was stunningly sympathetic to the pathetic plights his cast of ex-pat characters consistently put themselves into.  Who among us hasn't been stupid and fallen into the deep holes we've dug ourselves and foolishly ensnared ourselves in?

How sad it is reading such an awesome first novel from such a young and obviously gifted up-and-coming writer who lived just long enough to give the world a glimpse of the promise he certainly would've more fully realized had heroin not snuffed him out so soon.


  1. How have I not read this book? It's going atop the towering, tottering metaphorical to be read stack in my head.

    Hope it's not the one that sends everything crashing...


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